December 10, 2019

Supreme Court Decides Rotkiske v. Klemm, et al.

On December 10, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Rotkiske v. Klemm, et al., No. 18-328, holding that the one-year statute of limitations set out in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) begins to run when the FDCPA violation occurs, not when the violation is discovered — absent the application of an equitable tolling doctrine.

Kevin Rotkiske failed to pay his credit card debt, which resulted in his credit card company turning the debt over to Klemm & Associates for collection. Klemm sued Rotkiske in March 2008 to collect the unpaid debt but had difficulty serving Rotkiske. It served the wrong person at an old address of Rotkiske. Klemm withdrew that suit. It later refiled suit in January 2009, but again, the process server served the wrong person at Rotkiske’s old address. Rotkiske did not respond to the summons, and Klemm obtained a default judgment against him. Rotkiske alleged that he did not learn of the debt-collection lawsuit until 2014 when he was denied a mortgage because of the default judgment.

Six years after the 2009 lawsuit, Rotkiske sued Klemm, claiming that Klemm violated the FDCPA by commencing the 2009 lawsuit after the state-law limitations period expired, which resulted in Klemm attempting to collect on a debt without the lawful ability to do so. Klemm moved to dismiss the complaint as barred by the FDCPA’s one-year statute of limitations. 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(d). Rotkiske, relying on Ninth Circuit precedent, countered that the court should apply a “discovery rule” to toll the limitations period until the date he knew or should have known of the FDCPA violation.

The district court rejected Rotkiske’s argument and held that the statute’s plain language required the limitations period to begin from the date of the violation, whether discovered or not. The district court also held that Rotkiske’s action was not saved by equitable tolling because his allegations did not demonstrate that he was misled by Klemm’s conduct. On appeal, the Third Circuit sua sponte reviewed the case en banc and unanimously affirmed. Because Rotkiske did not raise his equitable tolling argument, the Third Circuit only addressed whether the Ninth Circuit’s default presumption that all federal limitations periods run from the date of discovery should apply. The court held that it should not.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the conflict between the Courts of Appeals. It began by considering the FDCPA’s plain language, which provides that an action “may be brought . . . within one year from the date on which the violation occurs.” The Court held that this language is unambiguous and starts the limitations clock on the date the alleged violation actually happened. The Court refused to imply a general “discovery rule” where Congress did not expressly provide one. Not only would doing so cast the Court into the role of the legislature, but the Court noted that Congress knew well how to include a “discovery rule” itself — it has done so in numerous federal statutes — and made a policy decision not to include one in the FDCPA. The Court would not second-guess Congress’ decision.

Despite Justice Ginsburg’s views, the Court did not decide whether the FDCPA permits the application of equitable tolling doctrines. Rotkiske failed to preserve his argument related to equitable tolling doctrine before the Third Circuit and failed to raise it in his petition for certiorari. Accordingly, the Court’s ruling was limited to whether the “discovery rule” applies to the FDCPA’s statute of limitations period. The Court held that it does not.

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh joined. Justice Sotomayor filed a concurring opinion, and Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion.

Download Opinion of the Court.
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